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Monday, September 08, 2003

What's Natural About Marriage?

What's Natural About Marriage?

Laura Kipnis’ latest book, Against Love: A Polemic, makes an old case in a new way. Marriage, specifically monogamous marriage, is alleged to be… well… unnatural, a violation of human nature. That’s the old part. The new part? Monogamous marriage is just a capitalist trick designed to make people slaves.

Marriage – that is, any relationship that demands emotional and sexual fidelity – is bad because fidelity is bad. Fidelity is bad because it isn’t easy to live. Since fidelity isn’t easy, it must necessarily violate human nature. The evidence is near at hand: look at how many people cheat on their spouses! The logic is clear. If homosexuality, which comprises only three percent of the population, is normal, then adultery is certainly normal. Natural is normal. Unnatural is bad. Marriage is unnatural. Therefore…

But, a problem arises. Marriage is demonstrably good, both for spouses and children. Married people are, on average, happier than single people, in better health, and have better sex. Amazingly, recent studies have shown that even relatively bad marriages are better for children than the most amicable divorce. How can an “unnatural” institution be good for us?

We equate “natural” with “good” precisely because we don’t have much contact with nature. As we sit in our office cubicles, or slave away over various machines, we dream of a rustic cabin in the wilderness, by a pleasant stream or a sparkling lake. We dream about it because we haven’t lived it. The people who lived it weren’t generally that fond of it. They wrote of nature “red in tooth and claw” and a natural life “nasty, brutish and short”. Nature has insects, storms, floods, plagues. As one mariner observed about the sea, “She’s a beautiful lady, but she’ll kill you in a minute and no regrets.” Nature is a beauty, but dreadful.

Why dreadful? Because she is impersonal. Stephen Crane, also a mariner, expressed it most clearly, “A man said to the universe:/ ‘Sir I exist!’/ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘The fact has not created in me/ A sense of obligation." Nature possesses no intellect, no will. Nature does not think, nor choose. It is ungoverned. It just does.

The alert reader might argue that nature most certainly is governed. It is governed by the laws of nature: gravity, the speed of light, etc. True. But the natural laws that govern physical events are not passed by a collection of apes, dolphins and slugs, meeting in assembly. These natural laws simply express nature itself – together, these laws constitute what nature is. And this is precisely the problem.

We hold contradictory views of ourselves. When we want to indulge a particular lust, we argue, “But of course it’s alright to do this. Animals do it all the time, and we are nothing but animals!” But, we know our tools and ourselves effect the world far out of proportion to a colony of termites or hive of bees. Something about us is unnatural.

We simultaneously hold ourselves to be nothing but animals, and something far different than animals. But why? After all, virtually everything we are, we use or we do is natural. Atoms are the building blocks of nature, and – apart from a few very short-lived laboratory elements – everything is made of this natural stuff. We didn’t invent any of it. We just move the stuff around, like a beaver moves wood around to make a dam. A Corvette is just as natural as a coral reef.

But we can’t shake the knowledge: we are unnatural animals. This contradiction explains everything. You see, the relationships between persons are governed by laws which slugs do not know. Even when men meet in assembly to pass laws, our human laws must reflect the immutable natural laws governing personal relationships, or the laws will crush us as surely as the laws of physics crush a snail against a stone. Physics, on the other hand, knows nothing of fairness. Nature’s laws are nature’s lusts. The only laws it obeys are its own. In that sense, nature embodies most American advertising slogans. Because nature obeys only itself, it is quintessentially deadly, maiming and killing without remorse. It is impersonal precisely because it does not, it cannot, relate to us as persons do.

We, who care for and about each other, cannot abide this natural mindlessness that cares not a jot for anyone or anything. It is a well-known, though little-noted fact, that over ninety percent of all species were wiped out several million years ago. When we wipe out species and habitats, we are acting in a purely natural fashion. It is our attempts at “nature conservation” that are distinctly unnatural. When we ignore the effects of our actions on persons, we operate at an animal level, that is, a natural physical level. Serial adulterers, rapists or killers are acting in a purely natural fashion. Those who try to stop them are not.

Insofar as anything acts without regard to persons, it is acting as nature acts. Capitalism, socialism, fascism – all are capable of encouraging people to act as animals, to act naturally. Laura Kipnis rejects the idea that marriage is about the other person, that it is about helping your spouse and children become better people. She rejects the fact that marriage is about service. She mistakenly thinks marriage is all about self-actualization. Since marriage clearly collapses, crushing spouses when treated this way, she concludes that marriage is the error and adultery must be the solution.

So, naturally, she wrote a book about it.

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